Syrian refugees settling in Lebanon for the long haul

This piece was published by the Interdependent on 19 October, 2012.

“It is what it is,” says 49-year-old Khaled Nahar. “People have been trying to help.” Khaled, his two wives, and their seven children fled their house in Homs when it was being shelled seven months ago. They used to be an affluent family, living in a four-story house. Now they live in a single room of a half-constructed house in Aarsal, a Lebanese town near the Syrian border. They share a kitchen with six other families and have no plumbing.

Khaled’s story is but one of many. Over 250,000 refugees have spilled across Syria’s borders—a seven-fold increase since March. By year’s end, the number of Syrians forced to flee Syria’s mounting violence is anticipated to almost triple again, to over 700,000 people.

António Guterres, head of the UN refugee agency, recently said that UNHCR is facing the biggest refugee crisis of the century, with more refugees crossing borders daily “than at any time in the last decade.”

Lebanon has already taken in 62,109 refugees—with 28,502 Syrians still waiting for registration. The continuing crisis has especially affected this nation (which is less than half the size of New Jersey), as refugees typically do not live in camps along the border, but with host families. Yet with many refugees in the country for months now, host communities are feeling the strain.

The Lebanese town of Aarsal has already taken in 1,511 families, or 7,633 refugees, according to Vice-Mayor Ahmed al-Fleeti. “The community is very supportive of this,” he says. “There is no Lebanese family who will say: we have 1,500 families, we are full.”

The Humanitarian Response

UNHCR sees refugees being hosted with local families as “very positive,” says Dana Sleiman, UNHCR’s spokesperson for Lebanon. She adds, “It allows Syrian families to live in a situation as close to normal as possible, and allows us to support the host community in areas which are impoverished to begin with.”

syria_2Isra complains about the hardships of finding enough food to feed the family.(Photo Credit: Jess Hill)

The UN agency coordinates the response of more than 50 aid agencies; indeed the network of aid agencies is extremely complex. In addition to UN-supervised projects, a coalition of 30 Islamic charities is also coordinating relief to the Syrian refugees on an ad hoc basis. In the Bekaa Valley, UNHCR has more then 25 NGOs operating to provide healthcare, housing, schooling, and food. These NGOs are divided between implementing partners, which are UN funded, and operational partners, which have the expertise to run their own projects.

Aarsal, for example, has run out of space to house refugees with host families. Therefore, the Danish Refugee Council, an implementing partner, has taken charge of housing refugees by leasing unfinished buildings, which are then finished roughly for habitation. One such structure, situated along a road leading to the border, houses seven families from Homs, including the Nahar family. A tricycle stands abandoned against the roughly finished cement walls; the doors are insulated with cardboard. The youngest of its 36 inhabitants was born just two months ago.

Omar, a good-looking 23 year old and one of Khaled Nahar’s seven children, lives upstairs with his wife. They married a week before they fled Syria in March. “I wanted him to get married before he died,” says Omar’s mother. When asked how fleeing has affected his being a newlywed, Omar explains, “I don’t feel anything anymore.” Nevertheless, his mother teases that Omar will start a family soon.

syria_3The youngest member of this community was born just two months ago.(Photo Credit: Jess Hill)

Despite their hardships, the family makes jokes, drinks tea, and enjoys a simple lunch. Outside, children sing Syrian revolution songs and curse the Russians.

The children, accustomed to an abundance of food, have had to get used to living on less. For 20 days, the family had to survive on sardines and canned cheese, says Isra, Khaled’s second wife. The UNHCR registration system does not allow for second wives; a family is registered in the name of the husband. At times, UNHCR only provided Isra with two cans of beans to feed a family of ten. “If the young men wouldn’t work, we would starve,” she says.

Syria’s Misfortune Is Another’s Fortune

“Now the town has reached its limit,” says municipality member Hafez Houjairi. “Shop depots, basements, everything has been used.” Although Vice-Mayor al-Fleeti denies any grumblers, some local residents are becoming bitter about the refugees, who are stretching both their privacy and their resources. “People are getting a bit annoyed,” Houjairi says. “There are people in their houses invading their privacy, but they feel it is their civic duty.” As winter draws near, at least 500 more families, who are currently residing outside the town in tents, are expected to need shelter.

Aarsal’s increased electricity demand has led to blackouts and shortages from Lebanon’s already strained grid. Food prices in the town have also gone up; a tank of vegetable oil, scarce in Syria, has seen a 50 percent price increase over the past few months. Even flour prices have increased due to demand. “Everything has gotten more expensive,” complains a local resident.

Meanwhile, Mohammed al-Fleeti, who runs a grocery store in the border town, is doing booming business. “If there are 7,000 more people, of course that gives an economic impulse. It’s good for business,” Mohammed says. He is especially benefitting from a new UNHCR program, which has swapped food packages for food coupons; each family member receives $31 worth of credit a month.

According to Dana Sleiman, the UNHCR spokesperson, “Based on assessment, we moved from food kits to food vouchers, which provide more food choice and also help local communities.” A large World Food Programme sticker on the store’s window indicates Mohammed’s participation in the program. The result has been a 15-20 percent increase in sales for him. “The Syrians used to be very, very conservative spenders, and now they are being less careful,” he says happily.

syria_4Mohammed al-Fleeti, a local vendor, pleased because a new UN food coupon program means refugees are spending less cautiously.(Photo Credit: Jess Hill)

However, others are harder to reach. 28-year-old Burhan Agha houses five refugees in his modest apartment in Tripoli, north Lebanon. Although he has registered with UNHCR, he says he has yet to receive any help. “I don’t get anything from UNHCR,” Burhan claims. “I have been registered for ten months yet have heard nothing.” Asked whether he has received food vouchers, which UNHCR has started rolling out in the area over the last ten days, Burhan answers, “I didn’t receive a penny.”

UNHCR has been trying to spread the word about the voucher program through local leaders and NGOs, says UNHCR’s Sleiman, “but people fall through the cracks.”

The article with pictures can be read here:


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